The world of Cold War spying is often depicted as a glamorous business, with clandestine meetings, ingenious gadgets and high drama. While there might have been some allure in espionage in the latter part of the 20th century, it certainly didn’t exist in East Germany. Instead, there was the constricting arms of the Stasi, the secret police and intelligence agency combined into one that was at the heart of life in the communist sector.
Movies such as Bridge of Spies, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Funeral in Berlin depict the hijinx of agents crossing the Berlin Wall, but the definitive cinematic portrayal of the East German era is The Lives of Others, a low key, intense story of a Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler’s increasing infatuation with a bohemian couple. His slow descent into obsession, the tedious scrutiny with which he follows the pair around and the inevitable meeting of Wiesler’s professional spying and personal fixations is beautifully played out, creating an essence of what the Stasi meant to the East German people. The line between the state and the individual blurred, completely. If one was looking for a cipher with which to decode the totality of the Stasi, The Lives of Others might well be the perfect option.
It bears mentioning because, before the film came out in 2006, the story of the Stasi was not well known outside of Germany. The actions of the CIA, MI6 and the KGB – or earlier of the Gestapo and the NKVD – are far more suited to the silver screen and the internal politics of East Germany is hardly the sexiest of subjects. But for those living in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), the Stasi was omnipresent and omniscient, the force that must always be considered and feared, the hidden hand in almost every aspect of life. Their secrecy was their strength, so let us talk you through a few of the methods in which they exerted their control over life in East Germany.
The Sword and Shield
The Stasi – to give them their proper name, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Ministry of State Security – was a secret police like no other. We might balk at the idea of a state secret police at all, they had been a feature of every regime that had ruled Germany previously, from the Kaiser’s Preußische Geheimpolizei to the Nazi Gestapo. Each government that had ruled Germany – and indeed, most other countries too – attempted to control the political actions of the populus and to limit perceived threats to the stability of the nation. When the Stasi were founded in 1950, it wasn’t seen as controversial.
Indeed, the Stasi was seen as a localized extension of the KGB, the Soviet Security Service that had arrived when the Russians had liberated Berlin from the Nazis in 1945. They were tasked with maintaining political support for the East German regime and for identifying perceived enemies of the state. After an uprising by workers in 1953 – campaigning for a state that was more like socialist which they had been sold by the authorities, with fairer wages and better conditions – was put down by the government and the Soviets, the need for a stronger secret police was clear to the DDR’s hierarchy. The irony of workers striking and marching – the tools of the political left – against an ostensibly leftist government was not lost on Bertolt Brecht, a prominent poet, playwright and communist, who penned a poem called “Die Lösung” (The Solution) that read:
After the uprising of the 17th of JuneThe Secretary of the Writers UnionHad leaflets distributed in the StalinalleeStating that the peopleHad forfeited the confidence of the governmentAnd could win it back onlyBy redoubled efforts. Would it not be easierIn that case for the governmentTo dissolve the peopleAnd elect another?
The grounds for further surveillance and further repression of dissent was clear, and the Stasi was the tool by which it would be enacted. The motto of the Ministry for State Security was that it was the “Sword and Shield of the Party”, the defence of the ideals and the attack against its enemies. Under Minster Erich Wollweber and later, more notorious head Erich Mielke, the reach of the Stasi would extend into every aspect of East German life. Initially that meant officers undercover in workplaces and universities, then it meant inside apartment complexes and social organizations like sports clubs and churches. The infiltration, however, was just beginning.